Sunday, November 24, 2013

Putting a Dent in the Universe, One Way or Another

The two men's personalities were more similar than different: both were temperamental, easily slighted. They had similar views of themselves, believing that they had a special purpose in life. Both clearly burned with a desire to shape history.

As young men, both embraced alternatives to mainstream culture: one became a hippie, the other a Marxist. One travelled to India looking for enlightenment, while the other went to the U.S.S.R. in search of a communal utopia. They both returned to the U.S. somewhat disillusioned. 

They could both be quite cruel and controlling: one was known for tearing down subordinates and once implied that the mother of his child was a slut, saying "28 per cent of the male population in the United States could be the father." The other one beat his Russian wife and refused to allow her to learn English.

They both ignored reality, but whereas one was famous for his "reality distortion field" in which he would convince not only himself but also everyone around him that the impossible could be achieved, the other only distorted reality for himself: upon returning from Russia, he was surprised that the press was not waiting for him at the airport to hear his story. His wife later told investigators about "his imagination, his fantasy, which was quite unfounded, as to the fact that he was an outstanding man."

One of these men founded a company by the time he was 21 and became a multi-millionaire at the age of 25. He then went on to reshape the personal computer, animated film, music, and telephone industries. The other also made his mark, on a tragic day in November, and would be dead at the age of 24 fifty years ago today.

So what made their life stories so different? Was it because one of them was more intelligent than the other? Was born with more innate charisma, a better aesthetic sense? Or was it parenting and the environment where each grew up? One was adopted shortly after birth and raised by middle-class parents in a stable home, while the other's father passed away 2 months before he was born. His overwhelmed mother put him and his siblings in an orphanage, then later moved with him across the country, worked long shifts, and left him to fend for himself. He went to juvenile hall for truancy, and his social worker there thought he conveyed "the feeling of a kid nobody gave a darn about."

Looking back on history, one can never be sure of causation. But I can tell you with certainty that childhood matters. Growing up in a safe environment with loving family matters. Having nurturing adults who support a child's interests matters. I wish that all of the attention given to Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination in recent weeks had focused less on the final act of the shooter and more on the formative years that shaped him. As Steve Jobs once said:
I'm 100% sure that if it hadn't been for Mrs. Hill in fourth grade and a few others, I would have absolutely have ended up in jail. I could see those tendencies in myself to have a certain energy to do something. It could have been directed at doing something interesting that other people thought was a good idea or doing something interesting that maybe other people didn't like so much. When you're young, a little bit of course correction goes a long way.